What happens when your child’s gender expression gets them misgendered, like all the time?
My daughter is a sweet, highly intelligent, empathetic eight year old with a bit of an anxiety issue. She loves Minecraft, Mario and Final Fantasy and has a pension for anything mysterious and dark. She also melts at the sight of anything cute and fuzzy. She possesses wisdom and knowledge well beyond her years and she is what you might call “gender non conforming”. Her mannerisms are very, very “girly”, and most days she presents as clearly feminine. Other days her gender expression doesn’t always “match” what society expects from an eight year old girl. Last year she shaved half her head and started wearing more pants. We shop in the boy’s section almost as often as the girl’s. She’s outwardly emotional and will let you know if you’ve done something she does not approve of.
Are you a boy or a girl?
We recently moved to an even smaller town than Spartanburg. To retain some level of normality, I have been taking my daughter to the local library here since that’s something we always loved doing when we lived closer to downtown. While attending a kid’s event there a much younger child was sizing up my daughter while waiting in line and then asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
My daughter’s face immediately twisted and she looked to me for guidance. The child was not malicious, simply asking a question that they did not know the answer to. The child presented as a female themselves (ribbons, dress, etc) and I’m sure had very specific ideas of what a “boy” and a “girl” should each look like. My daughter doesn’t fit into either of those narrow classifications.
I smiled at the child and stated, “She’s a girl sweetie.” My daughter was indignant. When we left she cried and asked, “Why does that always happen to me?” I felt her pain. After all, this wasn’t the first time she’d been misgendered in public. I also felt, perhaps she could have reacted a little differently herself. In order to avoid a melt down I put off our discussion until I could compose my thoughts. When I returned to the subject about a week later, this is how I approached it.
I brought up the incident and she seemed open to talking so, I proceeded. I explained that the child’s question had nothing to do with her and that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Then I suggested she could use those uncomfortable scenarios to teach other people. That immediately intrigued her. Next time she could just politely say that she would like to be called she / her, but that she expressed herself a little differently.
We also talked about forgiveness and empathy. It’s important to understand that most people have a very narrow view of how a person should express their gender. Remember that these stereotypes and limits are deeply ingrained in our subconscious and also changing and stretching all the time. More and more people will come to realize that gender expression is more fluid than well defined and we can only help them get there by educating them.
“I don’t feel like a boy or a girl, but I like to be called ‘she’.”
Awhile later she filled out an online profile for the online coding app, Scratch. There was a gender question … with male, female and a blank space. First her eyebrows scrunched and then her eyes got big and she pointed and asked, “Mom. What’s that?” I explained that some people didn’t identify as specifically male or female and that gave them a way to verbalize that. She lit up and asked, “Can I use it?” to which I replied, “Sure. What will you put there?” She clicked the box and simply typed in “other”. Then she sighed. I won’t lie. I had a moment.
Forgiving those who misgender you isn’t always easy.
I was recently on the other side of this as I acted in my roll as Communications Director for PFLAG Spartanburg. I was interacting with a individual via email and they expressed to me that they were transgender and recently began HRT. They specified their preferred pronouns and there were no issues whatsoever. Even with all of this information I still misgendered them a few days later when they emailed me again and I used their old name. I didn’t realize I was speaking with this person who was transitioning because Gmail so helpfully displays their old name along with their email address so, that name is what I defaulted to.
Not really anyone’s fault, just an unfortunate and embarrassing mistake. Still they could have been offended and reacted a certain way, but they didn’t. Contrary to what many people think, not everyone who gets misgendered takes it that seriously. They understood and confessed that they still misgendered themselves regularly. I was so grateful for their understanding and ease in handling the situation.
Situations like this are different when you’re interacting in person. Most people present as “male” or “female” and you can safely assume their preferences based on their outward expression. We have to remember, though, that things are changing fast. If you know that someone is, for instance, transgender and you aren’t sure it’s safer to ask. If you’re face-to-face with someone and you honestly can’t tell which gender they might identify with, it’s never rude to ask which pronouns they prefer. Even if they get their feelings hurt by the question because they, themselves have some hangup regarding gender, you’ve done your job as a considerate human by being thoughtful and considerate.
The last time someone called my daughter “he” in public, she simply smiled and said, “I prefer she” and the conversation continued. Even the offending human simply looked at her wide-eyed and said, “Oh! Sorry …” and continued chatting. No drama, tantrums or obvious judgement. It was pretty impressive.